Memories of joyful journeys on the Derry Boat

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Michael McKelvie

As a child and as a teenager in the 1950s and 60s I travelled with my family on the (Lairds Loch) boat from Glasgow to Derry and then on to grandmother’s place in Donegal.

EACH year as far back as I remember we made the annual pilgrimage via Derry to the little cottage in Donegal, a few miles outside of Ballybofey, from our home in Paisley, with my late parents and my brother and sister.

It was a rough old boat (above), but as a child it was like a giant playground.

Along with my older brother and younger sister we’d spend the best part of the evening playing tig, hide and seek, and generally running wild with the other children before flaking out exhausted about midnight.

The facilities were very poor for such a long overnight sail. There was a small hatch that acted as a bar which always had a very long queue and quite a few drunks. The seating was timber slatted benches and you either slept across them if you were lucky or the only alternative was the floor. It was a long weary night for adults but a big adventure for children.

In later years, as a teenager, the games changed from chasing each other to chasing the girls and having a sing-song up on the deck.

There was a large open area on deck with a tarpaulin stretched over it that you could shelter and sleep under in case of bad weather, this was a good place to meet and hopefully find a girl to cuddle up with as the night progressed.

There was a few cabins and a restaurant in first class and my dad sneaked us over for fish and chips but in general conditions on the boat were pretty basic.

They also carried cattle in the hold. I was never really bothered by this and not too aware of them and generally I only have happy memories of those times.

Sailing up the Foyle was something I still have great memories of seeing the small boats and the green fields running into the Lough, everything so quiet and still in the early morning light.

Disembarking in Derry and having a good breakfast that I was well ready for before heading for the bus to Donegal on the last leg of what seemed an epic journey. Some of the passengers’ destinations were to Tyrone – I have several relations in the Castlederg area—others remained in Derry but I would say the majority of them were Donegal-bound.

Arriving in Ballybofey, then out to my Grandma’s farm for weeks of unlimited freedom, and although times were not so affluent in Ireland in those days we were well looked after by my Aunt and Uncle.

This was my father’s annual holiday, two weeks in the summer, nothing like the time we get for leave nowadays. His holiday consisted of winning the hay and working on the hill at the peat.

My brother and I helped out but to us it was a bit of fun for all we did. To my father and uncle it was hard work.

Over the years I have still travelled back to Ireland with my wife and family, and now just myself and my wife, and although most of the giants of my childhood are now gone I still love to spend time in Derry and visit old friends, relations and neighbours in Donegal. I try to visit at least once a year.

It’s so much easier now to travel back and forwards to Ireland. The ferries are luxurious compared to the old Derry Boat, with bars, restaurants and cinemas and you are only on them for a couple of hours compared to the 12 hours from Glasgow to Derry.

People nowadays would not put up with those conditions, but in saying that I would love to travel that journey once more, sailing down the Clyde, over the Irish Sea, and gliding up the Foyle in the early morning light, truly magical moments.

The Derry Boat
Fair Friday night, at the Broomielaw quay,
Ship loading up for over the sea,
Irish men and wimmen wi their families in line,
Going home to their folks to spend precious time.

This is the day they’ve waited for all year,
To get back to their roots, and shed a few tears,
For a youth they left behind, to seek a new life,
To settle in Scotland, a job, and a wife.

Conditions are poor for a long all night sail,
From the Clyde to the Foyle it’s an arduous trail,
Timber slatted benches to sleep and to rest,
When you think of it now, it was a helluva test.

The night it is long, the boat not the best,
It’s a weary auld journey if wi bairns yer blessed,
There’s a hatch for a bar, wi a mile long queue,
The smart wans brought their ane bottle or two.

Up on the deck no one’s feeling the cold,
Wi the singing and dancing old stories re-told,
Spirits are high wi the young of today,
It’s a night to relax to enjoy, and to play.

Down in the hold the cattle’s packed tight,
Their foddered and watered and doon for the night,
Directly above the folks are settled as well,
Rocked to sleep by the heave, and the swell.

By 3 in the morning the place has calmed doon
It’s a site to behold by the light of the moon,
Bodies lying sleeping, in every available space,
Like the Marie Celeste, of life not a trace.

Gliding up the Foyle in the early morning light,
Green fields, fishing boats, it’s a wonderful site,
Sitting on deck with my head resting on the rail,
I know what I’m seeing and feeling, I will forever regale.

Disembarking in Derry, the smell of turf in the air,
If you were blindfolded, you’d still know you were there,
In for a feed of some eggs and ham,
Finished off with soda bread and jam.

On to the bus heading for old Donegal,
To a thousand wee places awaiting us all,
Ballybofey, Killybegs, Downings, too many to name,
But whatever the place the welcomes the same.

You’ll be at your ease, and relax for a while,
You’ll forget all your worries and regain your old smile,
With the family awaiting to greet you one and all,
To welcome you back to dear old Donegal.

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